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Chapter One:
Thicker than Water...

Chapter Two:
White Knight / Black Knight...

Chapter Three:
In the Shadow of the Black Knight

Chapter Four:
Fire in the Hole

Chapter Five:
Midnight's Heart

Chapter Six:
Deadly Reunion

Chapter Seven:
Sugar and Spice and Everything Vice

Chapter Eight:
Cold Justice

Chapter Nine:
The Chicago Connection

Chapter Ten:
The Battle of Midnight's Heart

Chapter Eleven:
The Sky Dreadnought


Paladin Blake

And the Secret City

—From the files of Blake Aviation Security—

By Eric Nylund


Chapter Five: Midnight's Heart

Paladin Blake set down the case of liquor with a slosh. The noise echoed throughout the hangar. There wasn't a soul here at five in the evening—and the only planes present were their Ford Hoplites and an ancient dust-covered Fokker biplane. In fact, this end of the Pontchartrain Aerodrome was deserted. The lack of activity in the Aerodrome was good for what they needed to do...but it still gave Paladin the creeps.

For more information see:
Paladin Blake

Half an hour ago, the Aegis drifted overhead at six thousand feet—hidden inside a cumulonimbus—and launched two Hoplites. Paladin and Tennyson piloted them down to five hundred feet, cut their engines and drifted through the tidal fog as noiselessly as a pair of falling leaves. They landed near Hangar Six, where he had agreed to meet Jacques Apollonaire, the mysterious New Orleans barkeep that was Paladin's only link to the Die Spinne smuggling syndicate.

Tennyson leaned against the stacked crates and mopped sweat from his bushy white brows with a pristine handkerchief. "We couldn't have the crew do this?" he asked with a tired sigh.

"Think of it as our new employee fitness program," Paladin answered with a sly grin. "Besides, we can't have any of our clean-cut crew here. It's just you and me—small-time bootleggers with aspirations."

"More like perspiration," Tennyson muttered. He carefully refolded his handkerchief and tucked it back into his white coveralls. He then fetched the last crate from his customized Hoplite, "Bumblebee."

Paladin absentmindedly scratched the stubble on his chin. He hadn't had a shave or shower for a week. He hardly looked like himself anymore—but more like his brother than he cared to admit.

In fact, his rugged appearance—necessary for the undercover job he was about to undertake—had been a problem in Texas. He had flown ahead of the Aegis to secure her safe passage across the Oklahoma territory, and had landed at the Ranger Airstrip One outside Amarillo. Texas Rangers tended to act first—jailing or shooting anyone who remotely looked like trouble.

Luckily, Marshal Jed Bouregard was stationed there and recognized Paladin. Last year, Blake Aviation had unofficially helped the Rangers blast raiders out of some Aztec ruins across the boarder. Jed had asked no embarrassing questions and gave the Aegis an escort all the way to Galveston.

For more information see:
The Republic of Texas; Blake Aviation Security

Paladin's attention snapped back to the present. Beyond the frosted glass of the hangar's massive doors, two shadows moved toward the side entrance.

He waved at Tennyson to get his attention, then nodded at the biplane in the corner. Tennyson trotted to the plane and crouched behind the fuselage. Paladin ducked behind his Hoplite, drawing his pistol.

The side door opened and two brawny uniformed police entered the hangar. Their guns were out, too. They sidled over to the Hoplite, and Paladin held his breath.

One of them took off his cap and scratched his bald head. He spotted the crates and said, "Bingo."

The other cop grinned with gapped teeth.

There was no way that they were coincidentally making their rounds in this deserted part of the Aerodrome. They knew exactly what they were looking for. Paladin tightened his grip on the pistol.

"And what have we here?" The bald cop pointed to the biplane and the exposed boot that belonged to Tennyson. He sniffed. "Smells like a bootlegger to me." They both chuckled.

Tennyson stood and smoothed out his coveralls. He held up his hands, almost looking relieved to see them. "No trouble here, officers. I'm always happy to help the local law enforcement. You see I'm really not a—"

Paladin quickly and quietly stepped behind the cop with the gapped teeth. He brought down the butt of his .45 on the hapless officer's skull. The cop dropped onto the cement floor.

"If you twitch," Paladin said to the policeman's partner, "it'll be the last move you make. Your gun: put it on the ground. Now."

The officer hesitated...then slowly knelt and deposited his gun.

"Put your hands up."

Tennyson looked horrified. Paladin motioned him out with a wave of his gun.

"It's a set up," Paladin muttered to Tennyson.

"No," the bald cop said. "It's no set up, Mr. Blake. We're supposed to check the place out and make it safe for you guys."

Paladin grimaced. The cop had called him "Mr. Blake"—but did they know he was Paladin Blake? Or did they still think he was Matthew?

Before Paladin could question the cop further, he spied a new figure silhouetted in the door. He wheeled and pointed his gun.

Jacques Apollonaire stepped forward. He wore a black tuxedo and bow tie and had his hair slicked back. "Welcome back to New Orleans."

"A bit overdressed for the occasion, aren't we?" Paladin asked. He prodded the bald cop in the back with the muzzle of his gun. "Get over there, buddy."

The cop stumbled toward Jacques.

"I have an appointment to keep after this business," Jacques said. He brushed the lapels of his tuxedo. The suit is appropriate attire, I assure you. As for the police, you have my apologies. They are in our employ." He shot a contemptuous glance at the bald officer and his companion on the floor. "They keep away government officials with their ludicrous two hundred percent excise tax. They were also here to prevent—" He crinkled his eyebrows. "What is the expression? The 'double cross?'"

"You've read too many novels," Paladin told him.

"I wish someone would explain what all this is about," Tennyson whispered. "I don't see why, Pal—"

Paladin silenced Tennyson with a slight shake of his head. That's all he needed was to be called by his real name; Tennyson was even less accustomed to undercover work than Paladin was.

"Tenny, this the Jacques. Jacques, this is Ten...Tennessee Gordon, the finest brewer and distiller of bourbon on either side of Appalachia."

For more information see:
Appalachia

Jacques clicked his heels and gave Tennyson a curt nod.

"Charmed," Tennyson said, in a decidedly un-charmed tone.

Jacques clapped his hands and told the police officer, "Take your partner outside and rouse him. Wait for me."

"Yes, sir," the bald cop said. He cast a glance at his gun on the floor, then looked at Paladin. He grabbed his unconscious partner and dragged him outside.

Jacques had changed in the few days since Paladin had last seen the mild-mannered bartender. He was acting like a big shot...and maybe he was. At the very least, he seemed to have the local police in his pocket. Or were they on loan from the Die Spinne group?

"These police are not smart," Jacques whispered, "but they are obedient." He scrutinized the stacked crates, and wordlessly moved his mouth as he counted. "One hundred twenty five, Monsieur. We had agreed to three hundred cases, non?"

"I have all three hundred—in a safe place. You'll get the balance when I see the cash."

"I understand." Jacques flicked at his moustache in irritation, then gestured to the cases. "May I?"

"Knock yourself out."

Jacques pried open the lid of a crate and removed one of the squared bottles. He uncorked it and took a sip. "Excellent. We said fifteen francs a bottle?"

"We said twenty-five."

Jacques reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope. "So we did." He thumbed through the envelope's contents and pulled out a sheaf of blue- and red-embossed bills. "If you prefer I can convert this, for a slight additional fee, into gold."

"Gold suits me better."

"As you wish. I can meet you with—"

"And as long as we're talking about my preferences, Jacques, I prefer to deal with the people in charge, too. See, I was thinking that maybe I could get you more than three hundred cases."

Jacques eyebrows shot up and a smile spread across his well-oiled suave features. "Indeed, that would be most—"

"I was thinking three hundred mores cases," Paladin said, "...a week."

"Three hundred a week? Impossible."

Paladin stepped toward Jacques, his pistol casually aimed at his heart. "Don't get me wrong: I like you as my middleman, and that's not going to stop as long as things continue to run smoothly. But I won't risk my neck crossing the Texas border just to have someone on this end tell me they can't move my merchandise. I want to meet these Die Spinne people. Face to face."

Jacques' gaze darted to some distant point as he thought this over, probably figuring now much his cut would be, then his oily smile oozed back over his face. "But of course, Monsieur Blake. I had intended to this very thing tonight. You have a plane, yes?"

Paladin nodded at their Hoplites.

"I will have the men load it, then we can deliver the goods, in person."

"Perfect," Paladin replied.

Jacques whistled and the two cops re-entered the hangar. The one who Paladin had cold-cocked was rubbing his head; he cast a murderous glance in Paladin's direction. Jacques instructed them to load the crates.

As they put back the cases Paladin and Tennyson had just unloaded, Tennyson stepped close to Paladin and whispered, "You couldn't think of a less colloquial name for me than 'Tennessee?' And how did you know these police were crooked when you drew your gun on them?"

"I'll explain later, Tenny."

He didn't know if he could explain it, though. Those cops had gone after Tennyson—reason enough to draw his .45—but there was more to it. He was close to finding Flora and ending this business. Maybe close enough that Paladin wouldn't even let the police get in his way.

He didn't like the way this was going. He had stolen—albeit was from his pirate brother—but it was still theft. He had leveraged his reputation, and that of Blake Aviation, to transport contraband. And he would he have shot, maybe killed, two men to get what he wanted.

Maybe it was more than Paladin's looks and name that lent themselves to playing the role of Matthew Blake.

When the Hoplites had been loaded, Jacques said to Paladin, "I will go with you." He nodded and smiled at Tennyson. "And Monsieur Tennessee can follow."

"Follow us where?" Paladin asked.

"I am afraid I must show you. You would not believe me otherwise." Jacques turned to his police escort. "That will be all for tonight, gentlemen."

The cops gave one last long look at Paladin, then left. Paladin hoped that was the last he saw of those two.

He, Jacques, and Tennyson then boarded their Hoplites and taxied onto the runway. Inside, the planes had seventy-five cases of liquor crammed into every available square inch. It took all five hundred feet of runway for the overloaded planes to get airborne. "Head southeast," Jacques instructed.

"We're going to run out of land quick," Paladin remarked.

"Oui, I know," Jacques said. "Southeast, please."

Paladin keyed the radio microphone. "Follow me, Tenny."

"Roger." There was a moment of silence, then Tennyson added: "You realize that, to carry our cargo, I had to remove all the armor off the Hoplites? It will take only a single magnesium round to ignite the two hundred and seventy gallons of bourbon we are sitting on."

For more information see:
Specialty Ammo

"So we're flying Molotov cocktails," Paladin muttered. "Great. Just keep your eyes peeled and bail out at the first sign of trouble."

Paladin realized Jacques had no parachute over his tuxedo. He better know what he was doing.

They banked over New Orleans and then skimmed over the Mississippi delta. Below were tangles of mangrove trees and mats of swamp grass and quicksand; it was a maze of twisting and turning rivulets. Thousands of white cranes stood in the waters and glowed amber and pink in the setting sun. Along the riverbanks crocodiles floated and soaked up the last of the day's warmth.

How Jacques was navigating Paladin wasn't sure. This could be a wild goose chance with him and Tennyson ending up one hundred and twenty-five cases lighter—and a bullet heavier.

—But he doubted it. He didn't trust Jacques...but he could depend on the man's greed.

Paladin watched the airspeed indicator and kept the Hoplite exactly at one hundred miles per hour. He had left Pontchartrain Aerodrome at precisely 5:15. He should be able to figure out the total distance to wherever it was they were headed.

The swamps thinned into muddy tidal flats, reflecting the twilight so it looked like a plain of gold leaf.

"Now head due east," Jacques shouted over the engine noise.

Paladin adjusted course and double-checked his seven. Tennyson was right there, watching his back.

The muddy flats vanished underwater and they flew over the Gulf of Mexico. Although the sun had set, there was a glow ahead—not from the west, but from the east.

As they approached, Paladin saw the light came from an island. Dozens of cargo ships and tugboats swarmed around the piers that stretched into the water. On the ground there was a city with more flashing lights than Manhattan; there were three runways, two aerodromes, and more zeppelins docked than he could easily count. Paladin squinted and spotted dozens of anti-aircraft batteries silhouetted on hills around the island.

"What is this place?" Paladin asked.

"Welcome to 'Le Coeur du Minuit,' Monsieur Blake, "Jacques said. "Welcome to the secret pirate city."

 


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